When asked to give his assessment on the state of the talent pipeline needed to drive the future of innovation, AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson perfectly captured the veiled theme of the day.
The talent pipeline, he said, responding to one of the last questions of the final session of the day, is “obsoleting.”
It was this simple comment — said during an onstage interview at The Atlantic’s “What’s Next?” summit in Chicago, a two-day event the media company co-organized this week with locally headquartered Boeing Co. to explore the future of innovation — that hit me the hardest.
The event wasn’t necessarily about talent. Self-driving cars. Space travel. Hacking the genome. The future of cities. Robots. These were the themes featured in the event’s program. And these were likely the themes that drove many in the audience (who from what I could tell ranged as widely from college students to media reporters to executives to venture capitalists) to attend.
But I knew that in attending an event built on the general theme of building innovation that the topic of talent would eventually surface. And so it did, not once but many times.
Earlier in the morning, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg spoke of a similar focus on the talent pipeline. When asked by veteran journalist, ABC News correspondent and author John Donvan about what Boeing needs most to build its next 100 years, Muilenburg didn’t hesitate.
“I think the most important investment we’ll make for the next 100 years is in talent,” Muilenburg said.
He continued: “We need to stay on the leading edge of technology. That technology in our products, in our internal process and manufacturing. But most importantly, we need the talent. It’s multidisciplinary talent. It’s talent that knows how to operate globally. That has technology savvy and a business savvy. And I would argue that the investment we make in talent is probably the most critical investment that we make as a company.”
For all the talk executives give to the development of new products and services, for every forecast of the future of self-driving cars, space travel and robots, is the nagging truth that executives are uniformly concerned with their companies’ ability to find the talent to make these visions a reality.
This issue — of an obsoleting talent pipeline, of being able to find and develop the right talent — isn’t just a business concern, either.
It’s a societal one.
The issues that we write about in Talent Economy are significant not just because business executives need these insights to drive their companies forward. They’re significant because, without a collective awakening on the shifting dynamic around the skills that are needed in society to build its future, the organizations that have built a disproportionate level of value to society — Boeing, with commercial air travel; and AT&T, with communications, among others — will struggle to innovate further.
The gravity of the coming challenges struck me again when a speaker was asked his thoughts on coding courses potentially being included at the preschool level.
Indeed, addressing the talent challenges companies face is not only an issue of strategic importance in that education at the highest levels needs to change; it’s also a challenge that requires a generational focus by leaders at all levels and of all stripes.
Talking about how innovation will shape the future of society and business is one thing. But recognizing the underlying challenge related to the primary resource needed to turn those visions into reality requires that leaders make a committed effort to solve the problem.
The Atlantic’s “What’s Next?” event may have been labeled as a summit exploring the future of innovation. It may have addressed the complexity of space travel to mars, the ways self-driving cars will improve our lives or how robots will fundamentally change the economy.
But the theme that was most obvious at the end of it, even though it wasn’t blatantly advertised, is that talent is the key to unlocking this future — and many companies remain concerned as to where they’re going to get it when they need it.
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor.